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Given the sorry fate of other projects derived from Disney theme-park attractions – The Country Bears (2002), The Haunted Mansion (2003) – it’s amazing that the Pirates of the Caribbean series should have remained financially seaworthy through four passable-to-indifferent entries. With Pirates 5 (subtitled Dead Men Tell No Tales in the US, and Salazar’s Revenge in a number of other countries) the cracks in the hull become unignorable.
Orlando Bloom has pleaded for reduced participation, passing his sextant to on-screen son Brenton Thwaites; Skins alumna Kaya Scodelario inherits Keira Knightley’s corsets. The series, in other words, has entered its Muppet Babies or Scrappy-Doo phase, with all the pop-cultural heft that implies.
There’s fresher blood behind the camera, also, not quite unwelcome after the avant garde tedium of Gore Verbinski’s three-hour send-off At World’s End and Rob Marshall’s by-the-numbers On Stranger Tides. Norwegians Joachim Rønning and Espen Sandberg, fresh from the Oscar-nominated Kon-Tiki, are keener than their predecessors to spend time at sea – some comfort to anybody wondering how interested this franchise really is in pirating – and toss much of the ballast that clogged prior installments overboard.
Dead Men Tell No Tales moves at a faster rate of knots than any Pirates film; trouble is, nothing has really been added. It’s the same soggy ride, set to a marginally preferable speed. Of plot, there is literally a ghost of an idea: to have Johnny Depp’s Jack Sparrow – washed up on St Martin, with his beloved boat the Black Pearl cleverly secreted inside a bottle – tempted back out on to the waves after the resurfacing of one Salazar, a decomposing Spaniard whom Sparrow last sent off to a watery grave. Javier Bardem brings an air of mouldering chorizo to this guest-villain role, but the screenplay doesn’t develop the enmity so much as jetski around it, stirring up noisy turbulence – doubtless sensing that the fanbase isn’t here for intricate yarn-spinning, rather the long-awaited/shruggingly tolerated return of Cap’n Jack.
Depp duly does what Depp does in these films – he swaggers, he rolls those kohl-heavy Keith Richards eyes, he leers at his younger female co-star – but this franchise has always been about delivering pantomimic nonsense, and lots of it. So it is that Golshifteh Farahani (who starred in last year’s Paterson) is bald with rank teeth as a conniving witch; so it is Paul McCartney momentarily shows up as Sparrow’s scouse uncle. After Becks in King Arthur, it’s not the season’s worst guest starring – rather sweetly, Macca steps in, tells a joke, and disappears, thumbs semi-aloft – but this isn’t A Hard Day’s Night so much as A Very Easy Paycheque.
Viewer value-for-money proves more debatable. The Pirates chains hasn’t had a memorable set piece ever since Dead Man’s Chest’s oversized waterwheel, and time and again this plumps for distraction over consequence, flooding the screen with frames that attain scale – like the ship that rears up on its haunches in readiness for attack – but not much meaning. The much-trailed zombie shark sequence comes to feel like watching somebody playing a tie-in video game.
Maybe the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise’s success lies in the bountiful downtime it offers beleaguered consumers: even with the wind in its sails here, long stretches of fruitless exposition invite one to have a pee, text a friend, make funeral arrangements, whatever. The rock’n’roll irreverence Pirates once claimed to have freighted into multiplexes has now long since drifted over the horizon.